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The name of the game

Blogger Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings looks into the issue of American football teams whose names have sparked controversy, such as teams calling themselves the Redskins, and so on. Now I don’t want to enter the swamps of that particular controversy, which Jim negotiates with customary dexterity. No what struck me is this – why don’t European sports teams have such names at all?

For example, consider the Premiership football (soccer to you barbarians in the colonies) league. The teams are called Manchester United, Liverpool FC, Tottenham Hotspur, etc. Not many references to ethnic groups there (though of course football does have its ethnic issues, as any Glasgow Rangers or Celtic fan would point out). The nomaclature of football is pretty tame, even while the makeup of the teams and the fans is not.

Look elsewhere. English cricket teams are named after counties of England. All very staid. Of course when you go outside the field of professional sports, it can get a bit more interesting. I occasionally play cricket for a side called The Pretenders. (My favourite cricket team was called The Corridor of Uncertainty!). But at the professional level at least, British teams sound about as exciting as a German movie without the subtitles.

Why are our teams sporting such dull names compared to our American cousins? I need enlightenment on this subject.

39 comments to The name of the game

  • Brian Micklethwait


    English county cricket teams now do have these stupid names, for the purposes of limited overs games, and in particular the new Twenty20 games (i.e. 20 overs each way). Surrey Lions, Lancashire Lightning, Gloucester Gladiators, Kent Spitfires, Notts Outlaws, and lots of other aggressive and bad mannered animals besides Lions, including the Derbyshire Scorpions, I think they are.

    I don’t like it.

    There’s also something depressing about the fact that all this happened at once. I.e. all the counties started being called these things, as a result of one big combined English cricket decision.

  • Harry Payne

    To follow on from Brian, the same thing happened to Rugby. “Leeds Rhinos”… ecch!

    It may be the way of things, that games have to do these things to keep public interest going, but to me it smacks of a last desperate attempt to keep something going under by re-branding it.

    Could be worse. Anyone remember “kabaddi”?

  • Martin Adamson

    They do exist, it’s just that they’ve become familiar by overuse or the original meaning has been lost. Both Celtic and Hibernian were pretty clear references to the fact that they were both founded by Irish immigrants to Scotland. Look at all the teams that are called Rovers – a Rover was originally a pirate.

    Some European teams also have these kind of references and histories – take Hajduk Split from Croatia – a hajduk is a kind of Balkan Robin Hood figure, a robber / freedom fighter. The Spanish team Espanyol – they play in Barcelona and their name reflects that fact that Barcelona FC is the catalan team, and they are the Castillian team.

  • Russ Lemley

    If I can ask a somewhat related question, but from a different angle. Jonathan says that “Rangers” connotes some sort of ethnic term. In the US, the Rangers are Texas’s police force, hence the Texas Rangers baseball team. How is Rangers an ethnic term in the UK? This ignorant American appreciates any help on this.

  • American teams have to have these names because they dont have a fixed base – over the next 50 years the redskins might end up playing out of anywhere from Washihiton to Detroit. By contrast it’s pretty well established that Manchester United are always going to play out of Manchester.

    The advantages of a geographical name is firstly it carrier with it the character of the place – think Chelsea an central London poofs, Middleboro shaven headed luts etc. Secondly it advertises its home town – tourists visit Manchester because of Man U. Most people by contrast have no idea where the Redskins are based.

    You also overlook at the rather cynical side of it all: because the Redskins are not constrained by their name to stay in Washington, they whore themselves in City halls across the country, threatening to move unless the City government buys them a bigger better stadia.

    And which do the fans prefer? Well look at the ZP – teams like Leicster and Northamton play to full houses every match. Sexily named teams like Saracens and Harlequins seldom muster 5,000.

  • Martin Adamson

    Russ and Rangers:

    OK, take a deep breath.

    Johnathan’s originally post refers to two soccer teams from Glasgow, Scotland.

    Celtic were formed and originally supported by Irish Catholic immigrants in the 19th century at a time when there was a lot of ethnic and religious tension. Scottish Protestant natives gravitated towards Rangers, and over the years the soccer rivalry between the two teams – who are both by far the richest and most successful teams in Scotland – came to be a kind of convenient outlet and rallying point for all kinds of other religious and ethnic bigotry.

    Over the past 50 years these sectarian divisions have become pretty well completely dead in the rest of Scotland – except in certain isolated, little visited enclaves – but they are still very much alive in Northern Ireland, where support for Rangers or Celtic is used a reliable barometer for those who go in for simplistic identity politics.

  • Raj

    Giles, I may be mistaken but surely the names of these teams precede the idea of teams moving. They have since developed into Marketing tools.
    I.e. I remember the Charlotte hornets having these tee-shirts with a cartoon like hornet as a logo. Quite cool, for the time.

    I think the reason why some British sports have adopted these suffixes is that they have seen that they can be used as marketing tools & want to increase the profitability of their clubs. It’s notable that there always seems to be a compromise between tradition & adoption of these names.
    e.g. In cricket they are only used for the one day game whereas in the more traditional 4 or 5 day game it’s still white uniforms and no team names.

    As far as the Rangers issue; the name Rangers does not in itself signify any ethnic group.
    It’s just that in Glasgow, Rangers FC has always been a Protestant club whereas Celtic has always been the catholic club.
    This is strongly reflected in the support (i.e. Celtic attracts a large number of supporters from the Irish Republic) and in Rangers case until recently the playing staff. (When Mo Johnston signed for Rangers in the late ‘80’s (I think) he was the first catholic to sign for Rangers in modern times). Celtic on the other hand always had the catholic identity & following but had numerous catholic players & managers over the years.

    Nowadays, with the advent of a more multinational footballing culture, this attitude towards players had thankfully died though Scottish Catholics would still face a difficult decision before signing for Rangers.

  • >>American teams have to have these names because they dont have a fixed base – over the next 50 years the redskins might end up playing out of anywhere from Washihiton to Detroit. By contrast it’s pretty well established that Manchester United are always going to play out of Manchester.<< Raj, American football teams (and baseball, for that matter) do move around with depressing frequency. However, pace the above, the moves don't always harmonize with the team names. Does anybody remember the short-lived Tennessee Oilers, for example? (Now the Titans.) Try to imagine, hypothetically, the Minnesota Dolphins or the Seattle Steelers or the San Francisco Patriots. Fortunately, there is some indication that local fan bases are starting to resist. When the hellfire-bound Art Modell moved his team from Cleveland to Baltimore, he was obliged to leave the name Browns to be revived at the next league expansion (which was two years ago). On the other hand, the new Houston team won't be the Oilers.

  • Interestingly, though, newer team names seem to prefer anonymous euphony to any connection to the local culture, so the possibility of future mercenary relocations is held out. Note: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.

  • Funny that you mention Tottenham Hotspur which is certainly not a prosaic name, neither is that of their rivals Arsenal named after the old armoury. Scottish teams have quite poetic names too: Heart of Midlothian, Partick Thistle, Queen of the South, Hamilton Academicals and who can forget the classic, if likely apocryphal, scoreline: Forfar 5 East Fife 4.

  • Jim

    Most of the long-standing team names in U.S. sports date back to the era before team owners would move them hither and yon to squeeze a few more concessions from municipal governments. The “Redskins”were the Boston Redskins in the 1930’s and kept the name when they moved to Washington. The name “Dodgers” was applied to the Brooklyn baseball team in the 1890’s — originally the “Trolley Dodgers” (because of a maze of trolley lines — i.e., street cars — in Brooklyn in those days) — and the nickname stayed with the team when they were relocated to California in the late 1950’s.

    Although some minor league teams had unique locally inspired names, many simply recycled major league names (thus, there were many Yankees and Giants, etc.) — but now that there has been such expansion of the major professional leagues and a profusion of new professional leagues for previously less visible sports, there is a shortage of good team nicknames. It takes time for a name to become a tradition… Also, many of the new team names are thought up by public relations consultants and/or marketing departments and sound really phoney. (The “Mighty Ducks” — give me a break!)

    My son and his wife have season tickets for the New York Liberty — that’s women’s professional basketball — and it is a good team, very exciting to watch, but it will take a long time for the average person to recognize the name and identify it with the team. The same thing applies, for example, to professional soccer — the closest team to where I live is the New England Revolution — again, not quite a household name. (Of course they face the extra problem in that soccer is a children’s game in the U.S. — far more 8 year olds play soccer than any other sport, including baseball, but almost nobody pays any attention to it after that.)

    Team names can be a problem outside of professional sports — in fact, they are probably more controversial when they are the names of school teams. People complain about professional team names like “Redskins” and “Indians” but there are far more high school and college teams with names that are related to Native American themes. There are people upset about teams named “Devils” (encouraging Satan worship — no, I’m not making this up) and people upset about any team name that they feel glorifies violance and conflict — and then there are gender issues. “The Rams” has been the nickname for sports teams at the University of Rhode Island — but what about the women’s teams? A ram is a male sheep. Incongruous, right? So they are sometimes called “The Lady Rams” but that is a bit of an oxymoron and the “lady” part of it is seen as anti-feminist.

  • Eamon Brennan


    When Mo Johnston signed for Rangers in the late ‘80’s (I think) he was the first catholic to sign for Rangers in modern times

    John Spencer was signed before Mo Johnson.

    Eamon Brennan

  • Richard A. Heddleson

    As an American I’ve always thought we had the dull names, with a few exceptions that Mr. McElravy poitned to, my favorite of which is the Los Angeles Lakers. Ever try to find a lake in Los Angeles? But Minneapolis is in the land of 10,000 lakes, or so every Minnesota auto license plate tells us. Pistons and Steelers are also good ones, though it is interesting how the name some how becomes dissociated from the industry when it enters decline.

    However, Manchester United…United what? I always wonder. Arsenal…has it no home city? I think a fair amount of the dullness is that familiarity breeds contempt.

  • Lewis Maskell

    I like the names of American teams, but the names of the cricket teams do sound ever so slightly un-English.

    @ Martin Adamson

    The sectarianism in Scotland still exists I am sorry to say. Certainly it is not as bad as it has been in the past, but it remains present in large swathes of the country. Not very many people in any one place, you understand, but a wide distribution of people.

    So most of the time no problem, but you can still run afoul of it. Also there are still present many sectarian attitudes in Scotland, which often go hand in hand with the racism that is also widespread in Scotland. Sad, but true.

  • Eamon Brennan

    Arsenal is a truncation of Woolwich Arsenal.

    Woolwich being the original home of the gunners.


  • ernest young


    I believe the original name was ‘Woolich Arsenal’.

    Like all things English, it gets shortened and bastardised.

    I preferred the Corinthian League, or at a push, the Isthmian League. The names were more supporter friendly and encouraged a community feeling of pride in a good team, or jocular resignation in the less successful.

    The advent of TV coverage, and the money involved changed ‘sport’ for ever, and IMHO, not for the better.

  • ernest young

    Eamonn, you are such a smart ass! 🙂 — you stick to NI, and I’ll stick to London. –deal?.

  • The matter of fan loyalty to a particular ground is also interesting. Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian play at grounds in, respectively, southwest inner city and northeast inner city Edinburgh. The two clubs are in debt. Tynecastle and Easter Road are both surrounded by densely packed Victorian tenements. Before and after the match, fans congregate for hours in the many local bars and consider this to be an essential part of the football experience. The owners of the clubs have suggested moving to a proposed new shared stadium on the edge of the city.

    Given the booming Edinburgh housing market, the existing grounds could be sold for many millions, debts could be paid off and, possibly, Hearts and Hibs would financially be in a position to challenge the two Glasgow giants, Rangers and Celtic. But the fans hate the idea. First, they think that such a move would be a prelude to a merger. Second, there are no pubs out in the sticks and no easy way to get there except by car. Third, they feel that clubs should remain in their “traditional” areas. I agree with them.

  • David Crawford

    In the U.S., team names started in the late 19th century with the professionalization of baseball. The National League was established in 1876. (The A.L. in 1901.) The N.L. teams all had nicknames.

    It was probably more the sportwriters than anyone else that caused the widespread popularity of team names. It’s easier to write “The Cubs win” than it is to write “The Chicago baseball team wins”.

    College football teams also adopted team names in the late 19th century. (Some of them kind of strange.) The University of Nebraska (now known as the Cornhuskers) were originally called the Bug-eaters. The University of Washington Huskies were originally the Sun-dodgers. The UW (pronounced “U-Dub”) is located in Seattle, a city not exactly renowned as sun-splashed (exact same weather as England). In the late 1920’s, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce asked the U-Dub to re-name their football team.

    The college football game that causes the most sniggering each year? Easy:

    University of Southern California Trojans
    Oregon State University Beavers

    Depending on who wins, you can imagine the fun the headline writers in the sports section have.

  • I think another difference is the shere number of football teams in the British league – names would be confusing since ther’re no doubt end up being 10 teams calling themselves the Tigers and if tow tiger teams get promoted into the same league it’d look kinda silly.

    By contrast most US sports are farnchise confrences so the possibility of double naming doesnt arise.

  • Richard A. Heddleson


    Now you’ve started it. What about the Santa Cruz Bannana Slugs? The Stanford Cardinal (color, bird, priest)? Perdue Boilermakers.

    Or Jack Lescoule’s favorite, Slippery Rock State Teachers College? I don’t recall their old nickname. Now that they’ve been promoted to a univeristy, they’re just The Rock

    But the best? most exotic? weirdest? are High Schools. Richland, Washington is one of the towns where the uranium or plutonium for the first atomic bombs was processed. It’s sports team is the Bombers and its insignia was a mushroom cloud at one time. http://richlandbombers.1989.tripod.com/1989NatlGeo.htm

  • Craig

    As a general rule in the US, baseball and basketball teams don’t change their names when they move – which gives us the aforementioned Lakers, the Oakland Athletics (“A”s), the San Francisco Giants, and the “Utah Jazz”, probably the most inappropriately-named team in any professional sport anywhere on the planet. (But I admit that the more locally-appropriate “Utah Choirboys” wouldn’t really make the opposition tremble in fear.)

    Hockey teams pretty much always change names when they move. Otherwise, we’d have the Colorado Nordiques, the New Jersey Rockies, the Carolina Whalers, etc.

    Football’s a toss-up: the Raiders didn’t change when they moved, but the Oilers did, albeit on a time delay. Cleveland’s a unique case – only onw I know of where the team changed name, but left the old name behind for use by someone else.

    I think this comes more from the naming conventions than anything else – many baseball teams tend to have fairly generic names (“Giants”, etc.) or a name whose original meaning is lost to history (“Dodgers”), while hockey teams tend to have more “localized” names. This would also apply to the Raiders. The newer baseball team names are more localized – if the Tampa Bay Devil Rays move, that’s one name that I doubt would move with them, and thank God for that.

    (BTW, I admit basketball kicks this theory in the head – I don’t have an explanation for the NBA, but since I hate professional basketball anyway, I also admit that I just don’t care.)

    One of the most popular names in soccer here is the Washington team: D.C. United. I’ve heard some soccer fans say they like it exactly because it just sounds right, like a Premier League team.

  • Nate

    David: You mean something like…”Beavers Get Stuffed by Slippery Trojans”??? *snicker*

    Yeah…definitely highschools have the weirdest team names. My highschool (Freeburg Community) were officially dubbed the “Midgets”…only team in the nation with such a distinction. 😉

  • Doug Collins

    I’m still unclear: what is a Ranger? In the US a ranger is type of Texas police officer as mentioned above, or is a member of the US Army commando group that traces its descent from Rodger’s Rangers in the Revolution.

    Tom Sharp mentions ‘Moss Rangers’ as Scottish cattle rustlers in one of his novels – is that the British derivation?

    By the way, I think the Oilers let their name go out of humiliation. When they threatened to leave Houston the first time, for Jacksonville Florida, no one tried to stop them. The second time when the threat to move to Tennessee came up, the effort to keep them here was embarassingly weak. There was a wall sign in a lot of businesses at the time asking the ‘Mother who had left her 11 children at the Astrodome to please pick them up… they are beating the Oilers and making them look bad. A team has to be at least mediocre to gather much local support.

  • Those names do sound embarrassing to me, I have to admit.

    I prefer the accidental poetry of a name which has a functional origin, but still sounds different.

    For example Sheffield Wednesday, from the days when Sheffield was rich enough to support two big teams and one played on Wednesdays. The ‘Wednesday’ used to intrigue me, and I think it has much more charm and specialness than all that straining for Dolphin/Piston/Laker memorability.

    Likewise, I think it’s interesting that the two best-named pop musicians [Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa] were using their own real names. Think of all the thousands of others who tried to come up with zippy made-up pop-star names — none as good as either of those names. Surely no coincidence?

  • Adam

    My college football team was know as the “Green Terror.” Can someone tell me what the heck is a green terror?

  • cardeblu

    Sort of on topic: I’ve never really paid that much attention to it but am now curious. Do UK teams have mascots and cheerleaders, as in the US?

  • Frank Jones

    >Interestingly, though, newer team names seem to prefer anonymous euphony to any connection to the local culture, so the possibility of future mercenary relocations is held out. Note: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.< I don't think I agree with this. Some newer team names absolutely reflect their geographical location: Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Phoenix Coyotes, etc. Even "Mighty Ducks" logically places the squad right next to Disneyland in Anaheim, having sprung from a Disney movie of the same name. Some US team names are so rooted in history that moving the club does nothing to erase the memory of the original location. The name "Dodgers" is still practically synonymous with Brooklyn, some 45 years after they moved to Los Angeles. The L.A. Lakers, on the other hand, have been so successful since their move from Minneapolis that people from outside the States sometimes wonder where all these lakes are hidden in Los Angeles. Then there are the Yankees. Can anyone imagine the Yankees playing their home games anywhere but New York? (Or the New York/New Jersey Metroplex, at the very least.) Impossible. The Statue of Liberty will be moved to San Diego before something that unthinkable happens.

  • I am not making this up.

    One night I had a dream that a friend of mine was reading a sports article about the recent spinoff of American football known as arena football expanding into Europe. The article had a list of various teams; the only one I can remember is the Berlin Axis.

    I doubt that anyone will be adopting that team name in my lifetime.

    And no, I didn’t see what the jerseys looked like.

  • MacBeth

    I just have to make this nomination for the best team nickname…the University of Northen Colorado Fighting Whites. A quote from the team’s home page:

    “The Fighting Whites basketball team was organized in early February (2002) by a group of Native American and non-Indian students of the University of Northern Colorado with the intent of playing intramural basketball. We came up with the “Fighting Whites” logo and slogan to have a little satirical fun and to deliver a simple, sincere, message about ethnic stereotyping. Since March 6, when our campus newspaper first reported on the “Fighting Whites”, we have been launched into the national spotlight, propelled by a national debate over stereotyping American Indians in sports symbolism.”


  • Ernie G

    Any discussion of ethnic names of athletic teams would be incomplete without mention of the Fighting Whites.

    The Fighting Whites basketball team was organized in early February (2002) by a group of Native American and non-Indian students of the University of Northern Colorado with the intent of playing intramural basketball.

    Their team logo features a ’50s clip art white guy with coat and tie.

  • Ernie G

    I should have read all the previous comments first.


  • gavster

    “Rangers” (COD sense 4: “wanderers”) was one of a number of similar epithets used by UK soccer teams in the late 19th C. Besides a Queens Park Rangers from north-west London (there are no senior teams called “London” anything), and a Berwick Rangers (who puzzlingly are based in England but play in the Scottish league), there are Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, etc.; the basic idea apparently being “we peregrinate around the country (beating other teams)”. Gives a clue to the club’s vintage.

    Still haven’t heard a name to beat those giants of Scottish junior football, Gala Fairydean…

  • I saw a high school somewhere in Illinois with a big sign: HOME OF THE PRETZELS. I wonder what the mascot is.

    The University of Southern Illinois has the Salukis. The saluki is a dog native to Egypt, and southern Illinois is known as Little Egypt because the southern tip of the state is located at a confluence of rivers.

  • My favorite take on team names was when my son’s volleyball team played another Catholic school — the St. Andrews “Vikings”.

    I pointed out to my son that it seemed strange for a Catholic school to name itself after a people who made a living by looting and pillaging Catholic monasteries.

    In modern day terms, that would by like a yeshiva calling themselves the “Yeshiva Shalom Brownshirts”.

  • Richard O.

    Richard Heddleson:
    “However, Manchester United…United what?”

    ‘United’ means joined together from smaller local clubs.

  • jc

    “San Francisco Patriots”?

  • Russ Lemley

    Martin, a belated thanks to your explanation.


  • kayla

    We’ve got a high school in our district that are also called the “midgets”, so no, you’re not the only one in the nation. We’ve also got the Pioneers. But I do believe that my high school tops it off–we are known as the Orabs. Yep, the orabs, as strange as it sounds. We don’t really have a mascot, because an orab isn’t really anything at all. “ORAB” stands for orange and black, our school colors. Sad, isn’t it?